Sports Illustrated Model Kelly Hughes On Embracing Physical And Mental Scars - Exclusive

In 2022, Kelly Hughes became the first Sports Illustrated swimsuit model to feature her C-section scar. Before giving birth to her son, Harlem, via emergency C-section in 2018, Hughes planned to have a natural childbirth, so she hadn't been previously aware of everything the procedure could entail.

C-sections — in which babies are delivered via the abdomen, often for health reasons — are now responsible for nearly one-third of all babies born in America (per the CDC). Despite it being a relatively commonplace procedure, it's often stigmatized. "The fact that one in three women is now having a C-section is something that needs to be talked about," Hughes said.

Now, she encourages women to embrace their bodies and imperfections — post-partum and otherwise — and normalize the conversation regarding C-sections. During an exclusive interview with The List, the Miami-based model revealed the physical and mental scars she's learned to embrace and discussed her quest to help others do the same.

Kelly Hughes has learned to embrace her physical and mental scars

Despite a smooth pregnancy, Kelly Hughes underwent an emergency C-section, which led to an infection, another surgery, and a difficult recovery. "I was concerned about getting back to work ... [and] about my health. I was concerned about all these factors, and that brought on a lot of stress, which then, in turn, made me very insecure. It affected me mentally, affected my recovery process," she revealed. "I started to victimize myself, and all my insecurities started in here, in my mind, and it started to work me up. The more I got in my head about it, the more things were falling apart."

Her saving grace was her healthy baby boy, whom she had to get stronger for. Upon reflection, Hughes acknowledged that there was a purpose to it all. "If I would've had a natural birth and everything would've gone how I planned it to go, I would've never been featured in Sports Illustrated with a C-section," she said. "I also appreciate every single minute I have with my son so much more. We are so unbelievably close because I lost eight days of his very first week on earth with him because I was in a hospital. I valued that time so differently, and my whole perspective changed."

She added, "The most important thing is to allow the process and allow yourself to take the journey that you're on, even if it's painful ... it's for a purpose. If we allow that, we learn so much more."

She's helping other women embrace their own scars of all kinds

In addition to her work with Sports Illustrated's Pay with Change campaign, which includes her collaboration with pregnancy and baby products company Frida Mom, Kelly Hughes wanted to involve others in her crusade. She has created the #scarlovechallenge on Instagram, a "space that people could go to where people are embracing their scars of all types so they could find encouragement."

Of the social media initiative, she said, "I have received so many messages from so many women that could relate to my story or who had different stories that were very different [from] mine, but somehow they were empowered through the story through Sports Illustrated and seeing the pictures."

Hughes realizes the potential impact of people coming together to embrace all types of scars, both physical and mental. She added, "It's really incredible when we can uplift each other. There really is power in social media when it's used for a positive thing."

The 2022 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition is out now in stores and online.